Publisher: Montlake Romance

Cross Her Heart by Melinda Leigh

Cross Her Heart by Melinda LeighCross Her Heart by Melinda Leigh
Series: Bree Taggert #1
Published by Montlake Romance on 17th March 2020
Pages: 369
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four-stars

For more than twenty-five years, Philadelphia homicide detective Bree Taggert has tucked away the nightmarish childhood memories of her parents’ murder-suicide…Until her younger sister, Erin, is killed in a crime that echoes that tragic night: innocent witnesses and a stormy marriage that ended in gunfire. There’s just one chilling difference. Erin’s husband, Justin, has vanished.

Bree knows how explosive the line between love and hate can be, yet the evidence against her troubled brother-in-law isn’t adding up. Teaming up with Justin’s old friend, former sheriff’s investigator and K-9 handler Matt Flynn, Bree vows to uncover the secrets of her sister’s life and death, as she promised Erin’s children.

But as her investigation unfolds, the danger hits close to home. Once again, Bree’s family is caught in a death grip. And this time, it could be fatal for her.

Melinda Leigh’s an old hand at this by now…writing taut and tight thrillers, I mean. With cleverly plotted, smartly-paced narratives that scarcely let you blink, the new Bree Taggert series—following the Morgan Dane one which I loved—is promising to be a good one, particularly if you’re more into the suspense than the romance.

Bree Taggert’s never really far from her violent past, but history seems to repeat itself in her sister’s murder, bringing her back to a place where she finds herself saddled with new responsibilities while dealing with fresh grief. Former investigator Matt Flynn helps her to unravel what happened that night, though it’s not one that’s easily undertaken both for Bree and the reader. Carnage, gore, complex characters, shady motivations and convincing legalese do make ‘Cross Her Heart’ an intriguing read from the start and it’s one that’s solid. Heavy topics are par for the course—death, guilt, murder—and Leigh covers this well and with sensitivity.

There are tangents and off-shoots as Leigh pulls secondary characters under the microscope and hints that any might be a suspect as we’re taken on a winding journey of unravelling what seems like a domestic dispute case of a spouse killing his wife. But the overall murder plot is a little bizarre when all’s revealed, admittedly, as though it’s something that you merely give a side-eye to when you’re finally introduced to a pivotal turn of events, then are incredulous when it finally untangles in front of your eyes.

There’s strong friendship here, mature protagonists and barely a hint of romance, but if I know Leigh’s writing style, this is merely a slow burn, with a deliberate (and understandably, appropriate) build that will continue over the rest of the series. It’s a solid introduction however, to a couple that will just grow stronger over the next few books and I for one, can’t wait.

four-stars

Yours in Scandal by Lauren Layne

Yours In Scandal by Lauren Layne
Series: Man of the Year #1
Published by Montlake Romance on 10th March 2020
Pages: 278
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two-stars

Fresh off being named Citizen magazine’s Man of the Year, New York City’s youngest mayor, Robert Davenport, decides it’s time to strategize. Next move: a bid for the governor’s seat. In his way: an incumbent with a flawless reputation. He also has an Achilles’ heel: an estranged wild-child daughter with a past so scandalous it could be Robert’s ticket to victory. And a charm so irresistible it could be Robert’s downfall.

Rebellion is a thing of the past for Adeline Blake. As New York’s premier event planner, she’s all about reform and respectability. Then she’s approached by Robert to organize the party of the season. Curious, considering he’s her father’s most formidable opponent. And alarming, too. Because Addie can’t help but fall for the righteously popular candidate with the movie-star smile.

Now it’s Robert’s choice. Does he pursue a future that holds his legacy? Or the woman who holds his heart?

In an age of political cynicism, ‘Yours in Scandal’ is a more lighthearted take on politics and an incidental romance that develops out of it, never steering too close to the deep divisiveness that dominates the headlines these days.

That said, I am familiar with Layne’s style which does have a certain smartness and intelligence to the modern-day rom-com. But in recent times, they’ve sort of faded for me and I’d hoped that ‘Yours in Sandal’ would be a perk-me-up. As a result, I’m mixed with this one, even though this has a delicious premise of fraternising with the enemy, a slow burn and a hard juggle between professional facades and personal feelings.

Subterfuge underlaid Robert’s and Adeline’s relationship both ways and I struggled with this majorly when it became obvious this was going to be the part where the lack of communication would blow up in their faces. Clearly not all was as it seemed—and both Robert and Adeline carried on that way for yonks—and if there was some hint of attraction in their interactions, nothing was too hot and heavy such that I was squinting by the halfway mark to feel a chemistry that wasn’t quite there. I didn’t get the anticipatory sense of sexual tension or build-up; instead I got a pursue-and-dodge pattern which got tiresome after a while.

I generally liked Robert’s principled nature as mayor of New York, his determination to be a clean politician—though he was dragged by some forces to not quite do some right things. At the start, there was also such an appeal of wanting to know how Layne would reconcile the wild girl rattling against the cages demanding to be let out and the prim and proper event planner that was intriguing both Addie and Adeline.

Sadly, she merely ended up as a frustratingly opaque character, constantly pushing Robert away with excuses about his chosen career not being for her. In fact, she was a player of games because she wanted to hide behind her past, coupled her inability to put herself out there and be emotionally brave was off-putting. I found her, in essence, a huge flight risk (and was proven correct) with a foot ready to step out of the relationship when she could.

‘Yours in Scandal’ was a personal disappointment, but I’ll be first to say that it’s classic Lauren Layne in many ways as well…and will probably guarantee stalwart fans a better time than I had with this.

two-stars

Save Your Breath by Melinda Leigh

Save Your Breath by Melinda LeighSave Your Breath by Melinda Leigh
Series: Morgan Dane #6
Published by Montlake Romance on 17th September 2019
Pages: 320
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four-stars

Morgan Dane and PI Lance Kruger investigate the mysterious disappearance of a true-crime writer.

When true-crime writer Olivia Cruz disappears with no signs of foul play, her new boyfriend, Lincoln Sharp, suspects the worst. He knows she didn’t leave willingly and turns to attorney Morgan Dane and PI Lance Kruger to find her before it’s too late.

As they dig through Olivia’s life, they are shocked to discover a connection between her current book research on two cold murder cases and the suicide of one of Morgan’s prospective clients.

As Morgan and Lance investigate, the number of suspects grows, but time is running out to find Olivia alive. When danger comes knocking at their door, Morgan and Lance realize that they may be the killer’s next targets.

Melinda Leigh returns with one of the tightest, most cohesive crime-busting, lawyer-PI team in the Morgan Dane series—I can’t seem to get enough of Morgan Dane and Lance Kruger—and ‘Save Your Breath’ is yet another great instalment in this fantastic lineup.

I think I’ve said this in every review of the series, but written from a romance review’s perspective, I’ll need to say it again: the romance is slight and brought off-screen, given the established pairings, with slight touches and kisses and reaffirming words forming the basis of affection here. Lance and Morgan are grounded in each other and it’s always a joy to read about their mature relationship and how they get on in each new book, so ‘Save Your Breath’ furthers their relationship just a little more and probably gives them the short but needed HEA all of their stalwart fans want.

As much as I was hoping for a sharper focus on Lincoln Sharp’s and Olivia Wade’s romance developing along side Morgan/Lance’s rock-solid one, ‘Save Your Breath’ wastes no time in moving past their attraction, straight onto the meat of the story of Olivia’s disappearance and several seemingly unlinked cases.

There’s no doubt that Leigh always crafts a good suspense; this far into the series, the pacing, tone and characters are nuanced and pitch-perfect, though a mite bit predictable plot-wise, or even a bit of a let down when all’s revealed and tied up.

Still, it’s a smooth read otherwise, engaging and compelling and if this is really Leigh’s last in this series, I’ll be saying a very, very wistful goodbye.

four-stars

The Friend Zone by Sariah Wilson

The Friend Zone by Sariah WilsonThe Friend Zone by Sariah Wilson
Published by Montlake Romance on 11th June 2019
Pages: 304
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three-stars

Disgraced college quarterback Logan Hunt was on his way to NFL stardom when he messed up big-time. Now the Texas star player with a bad temper has a new option: Seattle’s EOL College—as in End of the Line, to his fellow misfit recruits. It’s Logan’s last chance. If he can follow the rules.

No parties, no fighting, no swearing, and oh, no dating the coach’s daughter, Jess. Simple. Yeah, right. For Logan, there has never been a rule he’s more tempted to break.

The deal is “just friends.” The pretty, confident, and fiercely smart math whiz is fine with pizza, tutoring, and keeping Logan in line. But the closer Jess gets, the more receptive she is to his warm heart and spirit—not to mention his irresistible off-field passes.

With defenses down, they’re both heading into the danger zone.

It’s more than thrilling. It’s love. It’s also a game changer that could sideline Logan’s NFL goals—and more important, a future with Jess. But dreams are worth fighting for, right?

Sariah Wilson’s ‘The Friend Zone’ harks back to a time when I remember YA/NA reads to be a lot more innocent and docile, both in speech and thoughts and deeds—or at least, when more risqué activities were kept firmly behind closed doors and stayed there, where the hottest things got were kisses and monologue-driven, self-actualising type of pining and many, many scorching looks.

It does take getting used to though, having this version of sparkly clean YA/NA sports romance graze my e-reader after being inured to a million sex scenes, to the uninhibited partying lifestyles of manwhore athletes and the women who prostrate themselves without care at their feet. So much so, that I kept wondering if Logan Hunt and Jess were going to go beyond censoring themselves and feeling hot under the collar after their bouts of denial, the chest-heaving sense of attraction, the running away and the pushing and pulling.

The answer, in short, is…no.

Wilson instead, does it the old school, slow-burn way: through friendship with some romantic, underlying tension and lets it grow and grow and…well, grow, with some bouts of humour in between. There isn’t a climax that ends up in torn clothes and smexy times (that did leave me somewhat disappointed anyhow) and with an ending that felt a little rushed and one that by-passed the physical nature of their relationship, I turned the last page still somehow wishing there had been more.

three-stars

Huge Deal by Lauren Layne

Huge Deal by Lauren LayneHuge Deal by Lauren Layne
Series: 21 Wall Street, #3
Published by Montlake Romance on 23rd April 2019
Pages: 268
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three-stars

An alpha among the wolves of Wall Street, Kennedy Dawson rose to the top of the pack by striking the right contracts at the right times. But there’s one deal that’s been giving him a run for his money—a pact to never again let his assistant, Kate, get under his skin. She may be smart, gorgeous, and sharp as a whip, but she’s definitely off-limits.

Kate Henley isn’t a banker, but she knows a thing or two about risk management—specifically, about managing her attraction to her smolderingly sexy boss. She already fell once, and Kennedy showed no sign of paying a return on her investment. So when Kennedy’s brother starts pursuing her, Kate figures she has the best of both worlds. Jack is charming, rich, very attentive, and the spitting image of his older brother.

It’s also making Kennedy think twice. But to win Kate’s heart, he’ll have to broker the deal of a lifetime…and prove he’s worth the risk.

It’s been a while since I’ve bene on the Lauren Layne boat, and ‘Huge Deal’ was one that I stepped into warily. Layne’s recent works have revolved around certain tropes and themes (questionable ones for me at least, when they seem to have to do with sibling dating, manwhores, oblivious/unrequited love) that have made it hard to fully like her books.

And lordy, how do I even begin with this?

Yes, there are feels. And yes, my chest hurt, mostly for Kate, but ultimately, I was left with too many doubts left unassuaged, shadowed instead by feel-good platitudes, of talk but not enough grit and fight in a relationship. Especially one that begins with unrequited emotions.

First, let’s get this out of the way: there’s no question that Layne can write and quite perceptively too. There’s angst, the outpouring of emotions, some nuanced looks at human behaviour in ‘Huge Deal’…but there’s also the uncomfortable underlying implications that affections could be transferred fast and that easily with the slight hint here of double-dipping, that appearances mattered greatly when Kennedy only noticed Kate after her mini-makeover which I couldn’t shake off.

Kenendy’s utter obliviousness to Kate, his underestimation of her, his under-appreciation for her for years when it was clear she had a thing for him was painful to read about. His accidental and meaningless put-downs made it worse—or that he often made it sound like he thought nothing of her except as an assistant—didn’t make the case for coupledom any easier, until Jack the younger brother came on the scene.

Why did it have to take a little bit of competition from his brother, for God’s sake, for Kennedy to wake up and see that Kate was a woman worth being with? That without Jack to peel the blinkers off Kennedy’s eyes, Kate couldn’t stand on her own merit and be deserving of that same attention without the makeover? Would Kate and Kennedy otherwise have gone on their own individual trajectories had Jack not intervened? Would Kennedy have not bothered about Kate otherwise?

The bottomline is, many of these burning questions—appearing when some tropes themselves appear—weren’t sufficiently addressed for me to buy into Kate/Kennedy, not when I found myself reading about affections that were too shakeable, too transferable, too easily swayed, where it had to take a mountain-moving revelation or makeover for an unattainable man to finally notice the woman who’d always been in front of him while going through a score of others in the meantime.

The reversal of everything in the last quarter of the book was surprising to say the least, as Kennedy ironically played catch up and took every effort to convince Kate—whose own POV on love had changed. In fact, I needed Layne to address the imbalance of emotions more or at least why it’d taken Kennedy this much to see her for what she was, but it seemed as though she’d taken another way out with a whole emotional twist that simply felt out of character for Kate.

With the sudden rush to an abrupt ending—the ending conflict was up and done too quickly for my liking—I was still left with the feeling that Kennedy hadn’t put himself out there enough, hadn’t fought for the both of them enough, hadn’t been put through the emotional agony enough, hadn’t made himself more vulnerable enough.

That Kate had all along, been the more multi-faceted character with the most growth and change didn’t exactly put them as equals as ‘Huge Deal’ rolled up to a quick HEA that left me less than convinced at a pairing that should and could have been more tested in a crucible that never quite burned hot enough.

three-stars

Secrets Never Die by Melinda Leigh

Secrets Never Die by Melinda LeighSecrets Never Die by Melinda Leigh
Series: Morgan Dane #5
Published by Montlake Romance on 19th March 2019
Pages: 361
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four-stars

When a retired sheriff’s deputy is shot to death in his home, his troubled teenage stepson, Evan, becomes the prime suspect. Even more incriminating, the boy disappeared from the scene of the crime.

Desperate to find her son, Evan’s mother begs PI Lance Kruger for help. She knows her son is innocent. Kruger and defense attorney Morgan Dane want to believe that too, but the evidence against the boy is damning. Just as the trail goes cold, another deputy vanishes. His shocking connection to Evan’s stepfather throws the investigation into chaos as Lance and Morgan fear the worst…that Evan is the killer’s new target.

With so many secrets to unravel, will Lance and Morgan find him before it’s too late?

Throw in a police procedural-type story and I know Melinda Leigh can make it shine. Leigh’s Morgan Dane juggernaut—into its fifth book here—keeps rolling on and shows no sign of abating and for good reasons.

Morgan and Lance tackle a case that has gotten law enforcement into a tizzy: the murder of a retired deputy sheriff, his missing stepson and the current inclination of the authorities to blame it on the latter. The setup is admittedly formulaic (and a little anti-climatic as well) but nonetheless absorbing, easy to follow, with protagonists you know you can put your last penny behind.

I loved catching up with Morgan and Lance, whose relationship grows from strength to strength. Past the sexual tension, the getting-together, Morgan/Lance’s solid partnership is never in question. The return of the odd, power couple as a crime-solving duo is always welcome of course, yet I find that I miss the heat between them—something that Leigh now glances over—even though I liked the progression of their relationship. Essentially, much of ‘Secrets Never Die’ deals with the investigation process and the superhuman strength that both Morgan/Lance seem to possess in the few days within which the story takes place, with only a very, very faint whiff of romance even with the introduction of a potential secondary pairing of Sharp and Olivia.

In any case, Leigh’s solid writing gave me a good ol’ crime mystery to solve and if you aren’t bothered by the seeming lack of romance) ‘Secrets Never Die’ is a pretty good all rounder.

four-stars

Ache for You by J.T. Geissinger

Ache for You by J.T. GeissingerAche for You by J.T. Geissinger
Series: Slow Burn #3
Published by Montlake Romance on 6th November 2018
Pages: 362
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one-star

In this fairy tale with a sexy twist, she’s a penniless San Francisco seamstress. He’s the king of Italian couture. Who’s got designs on whom?

Boutique owner Kimber DiSanto has seen better days. She’s been dumped at the altar by Prince Charmless, her business went up in flames (literally), and now she’s stuck in Florence, Italy, with an ice-queen stepmother, to try to save her late father’s failing dress shop. Only one thing could make it worse: another man in her life. The arrogant Italian fashion tycoon offering to buy her father’s shop is as rich as he is sexy, and their attraction is off the charts. But Kimber’s not about to get burned again.

Women don’t say no to Matteo Moretti—and certainly not with Kimber’s stinging precision. With all the heat and fury sparking between them, Matteo can’t resist baiting the gorgeous American. His plan? Win her over one scorching kiss at a time.

Kimber tells herself it’s all just a game. That her broken heart isn’t in danger, and that Matteo’s touch does not make her Lady Land dance with joy. But sometimes it takes the fieriest of enemies to turn a fantasy into a real-life romance.

Down-on-her-luck Kimber—dumped by a wealthy fiancé at the altar—makes it to Italy, though not without more drama following her around, mostly in the form of another rich Italian tycoon. Only to realise that her dying father has remarried a calculative barracuda, left her with 2 stepsisters, and an evil stepmother.

If this rings familiar, that’s because ‘Ache for You’ is a Cinderella tale of sorts from riches to rags and riches again, only that it involves a truly unlikeable heroine and a mysterious Italian fashion magnate who somehow gets turned on by rudeness and a judgemental attitude.

Kimber’s tendency to overreact, her exaggerated hysteria and self-pity pouring through the pages from the start as she makes everything all about her and her misery had me wondering if I’d accidentally stumbled onto a bitchy reality series instead of a reconstructed fairytale romance. Gritting my teeth, I hoped it would get better as I read on but instead, it became more and more farcical to be believable. I just couldn’t get the connection between Kimber and Matteo—are sparks supposed to fly if the latter gets off on being verbally abused?

In essence, as much as fairytales are supposed to be much-beloved archetypes, I thought Geissinger’s own characters felt too ‘locked’ in their stereotypes (the rom-com, first person POV style of writing confirms this) to be anything more than caricatures flitting through the winding plot.

As much as I liked the first book in the series, which did actually seem promising, I’m unfortunately going to count this as a total bust for me: the signs couldn’t be clearer when I found myself simply more exasperated than enthralled just a quarter way through.

one-star